One of the cornerstones of the Swem Library'sSpecial Collections Research Center is its rare book collection. Contained in this collection of some 50,000 volumes are books representative of human thought and culture, both popular and learned, that range in subject matter from science and medicine to history, literature, travel, and exploration. The collection spans a broad chronological field, from seven examples of beautiful incunabula produced in the fifteenth century before the invention of moveable type to books published by faculty at the College of William & Mary today in the twenty-first century.
This semester I have had the privilege of working with a large collection of association books that are being prepared for cataloguing. Association books are those associated directly with someone significant, whether that person be the author, a friend of the author, someone related to the book’s contents, or simply someone of historical significance. Such books often bear gift inscriptions from the author or the ownership marks of a historically significant person. Many of the books I have worked with this semester at some point belonged in the personal libraries of someone associated with William & Mary and contain either their ownership marks or bookplates.
For instance, among the first books I handled this semester belonged to John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the United States Supreme Court and who studied law at William & Mary under George Wythe. Like many of the books owned by Marshall, these bear his signature, “J. Marshall,” in ink on the books’ title pages.
While eclectic and representing the broad tastes and interests of their owners, many of the books, because they belonged either to students who attended William & Mary or to faculty who taught here, are pedagogical in nature. Well represented are titles, written in the eighteenth century and frequently reprinted during the nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic, by William Paley, whose texts on natural theology and moral philosophy were taught at many American colleges; Hugh Blair, the Scottish divine whose books on rhetoric and belles lettres were a staple of college curricula in the early republic; and Lindley Murray, whose textbooks on English grammar were the precursors to the popular McGuffey Readers.
One book in the collection, a reprint of Murray's English Reader, bears the ownership marks of John Tyler, tenth president of the United States and an alumnus of William & Mary. Tyler has inscribed his name twice, once on the flyleaf and once on the title page. Each of these is accompanied by marks indicating his residence, one Williamsburg and the other Washington, D.C. The book's endpapers feature a number of doodles, possibly those of President Tyler, including manicules (fists with an extended index finger, usually drawn in a book's margins and used to flag important passages) and the outline of a person's face.
Once this and other books in the collection are catalogued, they, like all of the books in Swem’s Special Collections, will be available to students, faculty, and members of the public for research and consultation in Special Collections’ reading room.
Thomas J. Gillan is a PhD Candidate in Lyon G. Tyler Department of History at the College of William and Mary and a 2012–2013 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.